A robin’s-egg-blue Chevy Bel Air breaks down by the side of the road. In the passenger seat, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) daydreams, staring up into a cloudless sky. She’s a mathematician who, along with her friends Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe), stalls on her way to work at NASA’s offices in Virginia. When a police siren zeroes in on them, their postures stiffen. Inside each woman, something wary and coiled snaps to attention. This is the first of many understated but emotionally persuasive scenes in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures that illustrates the dual consciousness of African-Americans. In the early 1960s, when the film takes place, the South remains woefully segregated, from libraries and restrooms to schools, buses, and drinking fountains. The sense of feeling safe or protected in public in White society doesn’t exist (one of the film’s many modern-day parallels). While Martin Luther King Jr. leads marches in the streets, Katherine and her friends struggle for equality inside the NASA compound. There, the color lines gradually break down, as these smart, talented women help the U.S. in the Space Race against the U.S.S.R. It would be easy to dismiss this movie as a derivative cross between The Help and A Beautiful Mind. Don’t. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best: a tear-jerker and a feel-good movie all in one.
Opens Sunday at the AMC Metreon.